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December 06, 2012 11:30 AM Lobbying and Member Incentives

By Jonathan Bernstein

Matt Yglesias saw “Lincoln” and got interested in patronage and the incentives it provided to, in this case, exiting lawmakers in a lame duck session.

It will surprise none of the regular readers here that I’m a fan of patronage, I’m sure. But Yglesias asks a good question: given the existence of extremely lucrative lobbying opportunities, can modern-day legislators be bought off influenced by the jobs which presidents can control?

It’s an excellent question. One answer is that political parties do probably have at least some influence on the influence-peddlers. Suppose Barack Obama really wants Evan Bayh’s vote on something during the lame duck session of the last Congress, and he knows that Bayh’s chief interest is to wrap up the session as quickly as possible so that he can start cashing in. Obama and the Democrats can’t dictate to anyone in the private section who they should hire. But anyone who wants Bayh because of his excellent relationships with the Democrats might think twice if Democrats made it clear that he had no excellent relationship with them. Surely, we know that House Republicans in the 1990s with their “K Street project” pressured lobbyists to hire Republicans; I don’t know whether they extended that pressure to which Republicans to hire, but they certainly might have.

Another answer is — wait, Dick Armey is getting $8M to quit FreedomWorks?!? That is: there appear to be excellent financial opportunities within the party network, at least on the Republican side. Granted, I don’t know how much influence George W. Bush may have had while president on self-styled outsider groups such as FreedomWorks and Club for Growth, but it’s certainly possible that the answer could at least be “some.”

But the third answer is: good point. I don’t really worry very much about quid pro quo corruption, but I do worry a lot about perverse incentives, and it sure seems iffy that Members of Congress who leave their jobs can get a large payout, and presumably for a lot less and much more comfortable work.

Still, there doesn’t seem to be a stampede for the exits, so perhaps, for whatever reasons, it’s not actually all that big an incentive after all. And the last few years notwithstanding, lame duck sessions are actually a much less significant deal than they were back in the 19th century, so the particular problem here might not be that big a deal.

I do have to say that I’m not sure I ever recall seeing a good academic article about post-Congressional careers over time (might be one I’m forgetting), and what if any effect it may have had on Congress. I will note (and perhaps cite irrelevantly) that the 19th century House was the pre-institutionalized House, and that Members back then often left for a promotion to local positions. If anyone knows of any study that sheds more light on these issues, I’d love to hear about it.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.
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